For many visitors, and indeed Icelandic citizens, Reykjavík and the surrounding area is Iceland. And very nice it is too. I, however, moved to Neskaupstaður, (population 1500), – about as far away from the capital as it is possible to be and still remain in Iceland. (725 kilometres to be exact).
My misgivings began when the Reykjavík-Egilsstaðir plane went into its descent. Since the flight had cleared the capital area, I’d seen no evidence of the existence of the human race on the ground below…and there didn’t seem to be any now. The plane landed regardless, and I was driven the one-hour route to Neskaupstaður by my new boss, Ágúst, who took his responsibilities as a guide seriously:
“We’re driving through Fagridalur – that means ‘beautiful valley’. I don’t know why. I don’t think there’s anything beautiful about it.”
We arrived. It was raining. I’d been awake since 4am. The main feature of the town was an enormous fish processing plant. What the fuck was I doing? Oddly, one of my new colleagues greeted me with that very question, followed by: “Why the fuck do you want to come here?!” Over the coming days, I learnt that if I wanted to go to the cinema or get a Chinese takeaway, it would involve a four-hour drive to Akureyri. (I don’t have a driving licence.)
Well, leaving aside the noodle issue, I came to realize that there are many reasons to come here. Firstly – and this is a big one when you think about it – you can leave your flat unlocked and your keys in the car. Everyone knows who everyone else is and what car they drive, so any potential car thief wouldn’t get very far. The same kind of rule seems to apply for children; they’re simply dressed in enough clothes and put outside to exhaust themselves – they’ll be home when they’re hungry. Isn’t this the kind of thing jaded city types dream of and watch TV shows about?
If you have to stagger a mile home at 6am, you can do so proudly and without fear. (Not that you could get a cab anyway.) Despite its small population, Neskaupstaður boasts two pubs, one of which, Egilsbuð, puts on all manner of events; (usually with three-course meal included) everything from salsa bands to troubadors to – inevitably – Þorrablót. The other bar honours the town’s unusual past (Neskaupstaður used to be run by an all-Communist council and was known as ‘Little Moscow’) with its name, Rauða Torgið – The Red Square. It also regularly features live music, including Iceland’s, er…easternmost band, Rokkhundar – Rock Dogs. One thing about going to the pub here though. There seems to be some sort of unfathomable rule that decrees, seemingly at random, that one weekend everyone will be jammed in there, set to push on well into tomorrow, and the next it’s one man and his dog. I have yet to work it out.
But why sit in the pub all night and waste the next day dealing with the hangover? All around is sheer, scenic space to muck around in, be it by foot, horse, or ski. And quiet. I spent weeks tiptoeing and lowering my voice before making the adjustment. Route 92 stops outside my front door – it’s literally the edge of civilization. The only sounds are produced by tweeting birds and babbling mountain streams, which you can of course drink from.
Neskaupstaður, and, to be fair, all the fjörd towns, are in stunning mountainous settings. The possibilities for hiking are pretty much endless, with lots of well-marked routes. It’s easy to feel like the only person in the world, standing in an empty landscape where it wouldn’t seem out of place for a dinosaur to stroll by. After an initial photographic frenzy, I’ve almost reached the conclusion that there’s not much point having a camera in Iceland. When showing people the photos, you inevitably end up explaining that it’s not really the effect that you were after, the real thing was much bigger/brighter/more bizarre, etc.
The east is also, don’t forget, really far away. From Reykjavík it’s ten hours by car, and flights are often cheaper to London than to Egilsstaðir. It works both ways – a friend’s father joked that he’d sailed to Grimsby (north of England), before he went to Reykjavík. The distance ensures that the east is the part of Iceland least visited by tourists. No plastic-horned helmets or inflatable puffins to be had here. As I was often to be told:
“Forget Reykjavík. This is the real Iceland.”